Key figures behind Blizzard’s smash-hit shooter look back at the making of a phenomenon
Hello fellow PlayStation gamers! Matt Hawley here. I’m a lead producer on Blizzard Entertainment’s Overwatch, which is just celebrating its two-year anniversary with a new in-game Anniversary event.
It’s crazy to think that we’re here now, two years after Overwatch first released and millions of people all over the world started playing it. It feels particularly crazy for me and the other folks at Blizzard who’ve been around since before Overwatch was even Overwatch.
To help celebrate our two years with you, we’ve gathered a few stories from some of the people who worked on Overwatch from the beginning to look back at how we all got to this moment.
How did the whole vision of Overwatch first come together?
Jeff Kaplan (Game Director): Overwatch came about through this series of meetings to brainstorm a new game post-Titan.
We had three pitches, one of which was a new class-based MMO-thing. One day we were in a class meeting deciding how many classes this new MMO should have. Geoff was the class designer on Titan originally, and in this meeting he said, “I would much rather make a game that had 50 classes that each did far fewer things and were much more focused — that’s what sounds really interesting to me right now.”
I really hung onto that. We tried to make that work for that MMO, but it just wasn’t working.
Geoff Goodman (Lead Hero Designer): Yeah, it made no sense with the progression system for an MMO.
Jeff: Later I was sitting at my desk thinking about what Geoff had said, and I started to take a bunch of character concept art that [assistant art director] Arnold Tsang had made.
For example, in Titan there was this enemy group called the Junkers with this big bruiser guy. And I’m looking at Arnold’s art and start thinking: well what if that guy is the hero? And what if we made a game that we had way more, but way more concentrated classes . . . and that became the heroes.
And instead of them being random characters, they were actual characters with backstories you could identify with. So instead of having a generic “Jumper” class, it’s Tracer, who’s played by Cara Theobold, and these are the four abilities she has.
Geoff: She only has three abilities.
Jeff: Her guns count as one! Once we all knew what the game was, we were able to work very quickly. It was never a question if we were going to make it to BlizzCon or not that year ; it was a matter of how many maps and how many heroes would we have.
I remember after Titan shut down, [Executive Producer] Ray Gresko pulled the team together for an inspirational talk. He wanted Team 4 to become a story that would go down in Blizzard history. And he wanted that story to be: We were the team that got shut down one year, and then announced a game at BlizzCon the next year.
He said that would become an inspirational Blizzard story for years to come. And Ray made everyone a believer.
What was it like before the team got the green light to start working on Overwatch?
Renaud Galand (Principal Character Artist): It was definitely scary — the only thing we knew was that we had six weeks to come up with a pitch, and that Overwatch was just one of the three pitches we decided to go for.
I think it started to shift from “scary” to “exciting” after we first showed other people at Blizzard the project. It was shortly after our “Core Combat” milestone, which was our first real chance to show it to the rest of the company: we wanted one map, four heroes, and it needed to be fun. We saw everybody reacting super positively. Everyone wanted to play this game.
Was there a moment when the Overwatch community first took you by surprise or impressed you?
Renaud: They’re always doing that!
Stephanie Johnson (Original Lead Community Manager on Overwatch): I feel the same way. I can’t count the number of times the community has rallied to find gaming partners for younger kids, or help a person who’s down and out build a computer that supports the game, or bringing joy or laughter to someone who’s going through a tough time. That is a constant; it’s never one single moment — it’s the identity of the community.
If I had to choose one favourite moment, though, I think it would be when the first Dinoflask video was published. I consider that the “singularity moment” when the community became self-aware and really started to take on its own identity.
They were starting to define what Overwatch meant to them, and that video in a nutshell encapsulates the brilliance and outlandishness of Overwatch players, all in the form of their leader Papa Jeff. Every single video Dinoflask has published since reinforces that identity and continues to build on it in new and unique ways.
Tim Ford (Lead Software Engineer): Looking back, I think my favourite memory of making Overwatch has to be the BlizzCon announcement. Remember how crazy that was?
Matt Hawley (Lead Game Producer): I was backstage during the opening ceremony. When you’re backstage like that, you see that gigantic screen, but everything’s in reverse, so they have TV monitors. And after Chris [Metzen] went out and revealed the trailer and came back down, he was standing on my right, and Jeff [Kaplan] was standing on my left, and we were watching that cinematic. At this point we still didn’t know: Is anyone gonna like this? We like it! But this is brand new.
And we got to the end, and the sigil comes up, and Metzen — I still have a bit of fanboyism for him — puts his arm around me and says, “We did it, man.” And he put his Overwatch track jacket and walked right out. And I looked at Jeff and was like: Well, that was pretty cool. For someone who was just a Blizzard fan 10 years ago, to be at that moment — it’s one of the high points of my career.
Tim: I can tell that story from the other side. I’m in the audience, and there’s this huge bank of seats that the majority of the Overwatch team was sitting in, and we’re sitting with our guests. So I’m sitting with my brother to my right, and my wife is to the left. My wife kinda knows what’s up, by virtue of proximity and having come to the office to bring us schotcheroos…
Matt: Oh yes.
Tim: It was a weekly thing, to bring schotcheroos. But my brother didn’t know anything. He knew I still worked at Blizzard, because I was somehow able to score tickets to BlizzCon. And I’m holding both of their hands. Cause Metzen comes out, right? This is before the video, so he comes out to announce, basically…
Tim and Matt at the same time: It’s been 17 years…
Tim: You say that, and I still get chills!
Matt: If I’m ever feeling bummed or sad, I go watch the video of that.
Tim: Oh god, yeah. So I’m dying…
I’m already crying, thinking about this. So I’m starting to sob, my wife’s laughing at me. Julie [Farbaniec, director of human resources] is right behind me, so she has her hand on my shoulder. I’ve basically grabbed my brother’s hand and put it on Andrew [Wang’s, senior software engineer] shoulder, because he’s sitting in front of me — fortunately Andrew and my brother are good friends too, so it wasn’t awkward.
Tim: And we’re just dying together like this, just shaking, as the video comes on.
Matt: And all of Team 4 is around you!
Tim: And then the cinematic plays, and we know that Metzen’s gonna come out in the jacket, so all of us are secretly wearing our Overwatch stuff. I was wearing a Reaper shirt that day, but I had a polo shirt over it. So all of us are tearing off our shirts and sweaters… and my brother just goes, “Man, why were you wearing a polo shirt to BlizzCon? I knew something was up!”
[Matt and Tim both laugh.]
Oh god, it was such a thrill. It was the most cathartic moment of my career. I’ve never felt more proud… well, the only time I was prouder was at the champagne toast, after we shipped. It was like, “Yep, we did it! People like it!” It was my first champagne toast. Next time, I’m wearing goggles.